I love the tunnel-like streets here and the crowded shops and stalls along the way. I usually venture out with my friend Dave, my roommates Jade and Madison, and other random guys who join us. (We always have to be in groups of three or more and we always have to have a guy with us to be out after dark. Security is a big deal here–we have a lot of rules!)
At the church of the Holy Sepulchre, we got a tour from an Augustine monk who showed us the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (not the tomb that Christ was laid in; the one that he acquired after, since the fist tomb was overrun by Christ’s disciples). You have to descend down to the lower levels of the church to get to it, since that all happened two thousand years ago, and people have been building things over the old city of Jerusalem for two millenia.
The tomb is a small cave with no lighting; you have to take a candle in with you. Of course, the candle light adds to the early-Christian effect. : )
Via Dolorosa means “Way of Pain” in Latin. The Via Dolorosa is the road on which Christ carried his cross through the city of Jerusalem. Along the way, Catholics and other Christians reverence the fourteen stations, or fourteen spots where incidents occurred along Christ’s journey. (For example, one station is where the Catholic Saint Veronica is said to have wiped Christ’s brow with her veil.)
We were walking near the third station, where Christ is said to have fallen while carrying his cross. There is a church, more than a thousand years old, that stands on the spot. We toured the chapel, and when we came out there was a group of Franciscans doing a re-enactment of Christ’s journey and carrying a cross. They carry it all along the Via Dolorosa, following the route that the Savior took. They stopped at every station and read from the accounts in the Gospels of Christ’s crucifixion, and they sang hymns in Latin. We followed them on their journey.
As the sun begins to set over Jerusalem on Friday afternoon, a feeling of impatience falls over the city and an air of hushed excitement falls over our group. We are going to the Western Wall to see the Jews welcome in Shabbat.
We enter the Old City through Lion’s Gate. The streets are barely wider than a car, so we press against the wall as cars come through. All the Palestinians are going home for the day, some to homes within the Old City and some to homes outside. The vendor of every shop that we pass is anxiously packing up his merchandise. Everyone is trying to close before the Sabbath at sundown. All the Orthodox Jews pass us quickly on their way to the Wall; some are almost running. No one wants to be late.
Contrary to popular belief, the Wall is not actually a remnant of the temple. It is a remnant of the retaining wall built to support the large temple mount where the Herodian temple sat. We arrive, and Wall is already packed with people.
The area near the wall is fenced off into two separate sections: men and women. As we enter into the women’s side, everyone is greeting friends and family. We crowd in, and some women are singing and dancing, while others are holding their Hebrew prayer books and rocking back and forth as they pray. One singing group welcomes us in. We don’t know the words, but we clap along and then later we join hands and dance with them (we don’t know what we’re doing, but we try our best to fake it). The whole time, we are careful, like the Jewish women, not to turn our backs toward the sacred Wall.
I go to touch the wall itself; it takes about ten minutes of waiting because the crowd is so dense. Hundreds of Jewish women press their faces against it as they pray. Finally it’s my turn; I touch the cold stone and think of all the prayers that have been uttered there. I say a quick prayer of gratitude to be in the Holy Land, then leave the women’s section to go watch the men (walking backward the whole time, of course!).
The men are having a very different experience. Their side of the wall is bigger, but much more crowded–there is hardly standing room for everyone. And their celebration is much livelier. The men sing loud songs in Hebrew to welcome in the Sabbath. Then they form circles and begin dancing. And things get even rowdier from there.
In the circles, three men link arms and spin around the circle as fast as they can (one frail-looking old man looks as if he’s about fly away!). Other men wave their arms and shake them–I am absolutely serious–like Tevye in “If I Were a Rich Man.” The rest of the men in the circle jump up and down, clap their hands, and sing louder than ever. The rule about not turning your back to the Wall definitely does not apply on the men’s side!
As the other girls and I watch from behind the fence, the Jewish men welcome in our guys completely. The old men and the young men, the most Orthodox and our American boys, dance and sing together. This is not a show put on for tourists; they are sincere in their fervor. They are expresssing complete joy in welcoming Shabbat. As I watch them, I feel an overwhelming sense of brotherhood (and a twinge of jealousy).
Maybe on other days of the week, the Western Wall is a wailing wall, as it is commonly nicknamed. But on Friday night, it is a place of excitement and celebration. The Jews are welcoming in the Lord’s day with complete joy and reverence–not quiet reverence, but worshipful reverence nonetheless.
The Jerusalem Center is in the eastern-most part of the city, backing the West Bank. (In fact, I think we are technically in the West Bank, but on the Jerusalem side of the wall.) The surrounding neighborhood is mostly Palestinian.
We were woken at 5:00 AM by the call to prayer. Today is the Islamic New Year, so the call to prayer went on longer than on a typical day (so I’m told–I haven’t had any typical days here yet).
The food they serve us is delicious. Israel doesn’t import any produce; it actually exports a lot of it, so all the food we eat has fresh Mediterranean produce in it.
Today we spent most of the day walking around the city. The Jerusalem Center is on Mt Scopus, right next to the Mount of Olives, so we walked down to the rest of the city. Everything is mountainous and hilly, but buildings have been built over every inch of ground, so by looking at the skyline you can get somewhat of an idea of the shape of the land beneath.
I was going to take photos from our balcony this morning to show you, but it was cold, rainy, and so foggy that we couldn’t see anything from our balcony, not even the neighboring Mount of Olives. So more photos to come soon!
We arrived at the JC about two hours ago. After about thirty hours of sitting on planes and in airports, I couldn’t be happier!
Our last flight was nonstop from Newark to Tel Aviv. The only other people on the flight besides us Jerusalem Center students were all very Jewish-looking (I guess regular American tourists don’t frequent the Holy Land as much these days!). Many of the men wore black coats and top hats and heavy beards and traditional side-curls. They looked exactly like the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof (okay, I promise that will be the last comparison that I make between the Jewish people I meet and the junior high school musical I was in). Mazel tov.
We flew over the Mediterranean and it was spectacular. I had my nose to the window the whole time. There was nothing but blue, blue water as far as the eye could see–and islands. Big islands, small islands, hundreds of islands. They were all rocky and mountainous, like Odysseus’s Ithaca. (I won’t make any more ignorant-sounding Fiddler on the Roof comparisons–but I can compare things to books, right?)
President Bush is also in Jerusalem right now. He is staying in the Hotel David, just a block or two from here. We can see it from our window. I can also see–I kid you not–the Dome of the Rock! From my bedroom window. No lie. Can you believe?! This all doesn’t even seem real. It seems like a very, very good dream.
The Jerusalem Center is amazing. The building is so beautiful. I wish Grandpa were here, because he would be able to appreciate the quality of the building and the time and effort expended to make the beautiful stone arches and the woodwork and everything else. (Did he and Grandma visit the Jerusalem Center while they were here? I don’t know.)
I love you all so much. : )